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Expelled Inspectors Mum on N. Korean Ambitions - 2002-12-31

Two inspectors for the United Nations nuclear monitoring agency have arrived in Beijing after North Korea expelled them. The move has deepened a crisis sparked by Pyongyang's decision to re-start a nuclear reactor that experts say could produce material for weapons.

The two inspectors from the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency arrived in Beijing Tuesday morning with nothing to say about the substance of North Korea's nuclear ambitions or the circumstances surrounding their expulsion.

One inspector did tell reporters that they would soon travel to the U.N. agency headquarters in Vienna, but revealed little else, not even his name. "We are IAEA inspectors. We are headed for headquarters Vienna. We have no further comment," he said.

Without the inspectors, the outside world loses its best way to watch what North Korea does with a nuclear power plant capable of producing both energy, and raw materials for nuclear weapons.

The IAEA is to hold an emergency meeting Monday at its Vienna headquarters to discuss the next step and will submit a report to the U.N. governing body detailing the North's violations of its nuclear agreements.

The inspectors were monitoring the Yongbyon reactor, which was shut down in 1994 under an agreement with the United States designed to keep Pyongyang from building nuclear bombs. But that changed earlier this month when the North Korea began disabling IAEA monitoring equipment at the site and moved in fuel rods for the reactor.

Pyongyang says it needs to restart Yongbyon to produce badly needed energy since the United States and it allies halted oil shipments in response to evidence of other nuclear violations by the North revealed in October.

Experts say North Korea could refine enough plutonium from the reactor's spent nuclear fuel to build three to six nuclear weapons. Pyongyang also has ballistic missiles that might be capable of delivering such weapons to Japan or parts of the United States. In addition, North Korea has hinted it may withdraw from the international nuclear non-proliferation treaty, sparking new concerns by the global community.

North Korea's long-time ally, Russia, said it regrets Pyongyang's decision to kick out the inspectors and called on the country to keep its non-proliferation commitments. North Korea's friendly neighbor, China, has said it is deeply concerned about the crisis called on all sides to reach a peaceful settlement through dialogue.

Washington says North Korea is dangerously isolating itself from the world community and will continue to pay "a serious price" - perhaps losing international aid if it continues the weapons program.

While the Bush Administration has ruled out direct talks with Pyongyang, it is sending a top U.S. envoy to South Korea and Japan in January to coordinate policy among the three nations.